Part 1: The Little Things

This is part one of a four part series:

  1. Part 1: The Little Things
  2. Part 2: Wind and waste heat
  3. Part 3: Petroleum, plastic, and data centers
  4. Part 4: How it will shake out and conclusion

PDF of the whole thing (2,158 words).

Being “green” is a badge worn with honor by companies and individuals alike. Just like consuming organic foods, it’s as much a yuppie status symbol as it is a lifestyle choice. At least it used to be. Venture capitalists are on the lookout for interesting green companies these days because there’s lots of money to be made by reducing energy consumption, cutting back greenhouse gas emissions, and generally doing more with less. From a very high, forward-thinking level, it seems bizarre that we haven’t been doing this right along: if economics is the study of human behavior in a world where there are limited resources but infinite demand, it makes sense that we would want to do more with less.

If it requires 50% less electricity to run an efficient datacenter, and 50% less gasoline to get from point A to point B, then that means we can house twice as many servers and end up with the same electric bill, and travel twice as far without burning any more gasoline. So every halving of the resources required to do something results in a net doubling of whatever you can do with that resource, all things being equal.

This model is easily applied to things like fuel efficiency and other commodity consumables, where small increases in efficiency result in immediate, apparent cost savings to an otherwise ignorant consumer. However there are other, less intuitive places to look where small savings aggregated across millions of people results in real macroeconomic benefit.

For example, there is a push right now to get rid of or improve “standby” modes for most electronic devices. This is what is widely considered the “off” position for most things, but in reality is actually the low-power mode wherein a device is not performing its primary function. The clock on the VCR and the microwave. The “breathing” the LED in your Macintosh computer does while it’s asleep. Your laser printer while it’s on standby waiting for a print job. Same for your fax machine.

A single device can suck up as much as 30W of electricity every 24 hours. Multiplied across all of the consumer electronics in your home, multiplied by the number of households in the United States, and you quickly realize that this is a boatload of wasted electricity. In fact, in the lifetime of a single electronic device, this savings is estimated to be $10. This is one of the reasons that President GW Bush directed the entire federal government to buy low-standby-power devices back in July of 2001 (PDF). Uncle Sam buys a lot of electronics. That means tens and possibly hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars saved by one superficially insignificant initiative.

4 thoughts on “Part 1: The Little Things

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